Associations

Many dividing lines run across and through the jewelry industry. Manufacturer. . . retailer. Chain store. . . independent. Importer. . . manufacturer. Under 40. . . over 40. Men. . . women. Perhaps none is as little noticed as association member. . . non-association member.

For a small industry, jewelry seems to have an extraordinary number of associations, well over 100 by conservative count. Almost all regularly solicit new members and commitments of their cash and time. The critical issue in these busy, demanding 1990s is time. There’s just not enough of it.

Consider that an active jeweler might reasonably be invited to be a member of at least 10 “basic” groups or organizations from a grass-roots state association to a high-intensity jewelers’ research group. Add to that list the jeweler’s community commitments to Rotary or Kiwanis Club, bank boards, hospital advisory committees and Little League endorsements – but why go on?

Is it any wonder that many jewelers are saying, “Enough already!”? Indeed, quite a few – including some of those who run the associations – say consolidation of existing groups is inevitable. Others argue that some associations have become so irrelevant they ought to be wound up.

The time squeeze is a major reason why association memberships are relatively small and, in spite of some exceptions, likely to stay so. But other important factors also put a brake on membership activity and growth. A poll of JCK Retail Panel members reveals a fairly widespread belief in the jewelry community that too many associations offer little of value, that participation in these groups’ events often is unaffordably costly, that they are unresponsive to member needs or to change, are run by self-perpetuating groups of insiders and too often have no time for “the little guy.”

That’s what the critics say – most of them members of at least one or two associations. In reply, supporters say that if the critics would look a little more closely and make the commitment to be involved, they’d find that these negative perceptions are largely wrong and that membership can and does provide very tangible rewards.

The split in opinion on the benefits of joining is most obvious if you listen to the views of association executives and the rank-and-file membership. The executives say their operations are strong and healthy and believe the general outlook for industry associations over the next three to four years is good to excellent, according to a sampling of opinion of a dozen or so representative groups. Members of the JCK Retail Panel – almost all of whom are members of two or three to eight or more groups – are less optimistic. Almost half call the associations’ outlook fair to poor. Fewer than one in ten say it is very good or excellent.

Perception is a key ingredient in judging the value of association membership. A leading Southern California jeweler, who does not belong to his state association and who rates the outlook for all industry associations as no better than “fair,” says jewelers are reluctant to join because “the perceived value, or benefit, just isn’t there.” Indeed, California is a good example of a state association with problems. Through the mid-1980s it ran a thriving and well-attended annual convention, but the event died when the state economy went into a tailspin at the end of the decade. Today, even though the economy is once again healthy, the association is finding it hard to attract new members or get existing ones more involved. “The retailer doesn’t really know what’s available to help him or he would participate,” says Marion Halfacre of Traditional Jewelers in Newport Beach, a very active CJA member.

It looked as if the California association was about to enjoy a rebirth two years ago when Pat O’Rourke, a long-time and popular officer, was named executive director. She promised when appointed to get out in the field to let jewelers know what the association can do to help them. But before she could make much progress she was sidelined by ill health and only last March was a new top officer – Alberta Hultman – named. Hultman has identified four immediate goals: to deliver “real and meaningful benefits” to members, to focus on customer service, to be the industry leader in the state and to revitalize the Pacific Jewelry Show.

She will have an important friend in her efforts. Jewelers of America, the national retail association, is now making its resources and expertise available to state affiliates with a new energy and generosity. This involvement largely reflects the philosophy of Matt Runci, who became JA’s chief executive in 1995.

What turns them on. “Value” is a word that comes up again and again when jewelers discuss how they perceive various industry associations and groups. Thus it’s not too surprising to find that jewelers are most active in and enthusiastic about those groups where they can see immediate results from their participation. In the JCK poll, panelists clearly give their top votes for value to the Scull groups and the various jewelers’ research groups. Sharing financial details with non-competing stores is one of the real draws for all these groups. The fragmented nature of jewelry retailing means that, except for JA’s excellent Cost of Doing Business surveys, useful operations figures are virtually non-existent.

These groups also address common management and administrative issues. In addition, more senior members in some of the research groups will from time to time offer counsel to younger colleagues on business and family matters.

The next “level of interest” shown by panelists is in the two principal retail buying groups – the Independent Jewelers Organization and the Retail Jewelers Organization – and in the American Gem Society. Many of the jewelers who belong to IJO or RJO give these organizations high marks for providing group buying opportunities that help them compete with “the majors.” AGS’s concentration on education and ethical business behavior, meanwhile, is rated of much higher interest than its small annual buying event.

Support for AGS is put succinctly by Jack Seibert, who runs a business under his own name in Columbus, Ohio. “The American Gem Society is essential to our industry,” he says. “It has strong membership requirements, and the public has always perceived it to be the most ethical organization.”

The Jewelers Vigilance Committee, the Jewelers Security Alliance and the Jewelry Information Center are the three national groups in which member jewelers confess they are least active. This is not a reflection on the value of the three groups; rather it reflects the fact JVC, JSA and JIC draw their day-to-day industry support from a small group of directors, most of whom are extremely active in fostering each group’s individual agenda.

A closer look at industry support for the Vigilance Committee and the Security Alliance offers some revealing information, however. Both seek support from both retailers and manufacturers, giving them a target membership of around 40,000 companies. JVC, which promotes ethical business practices, has about 1,400 individual members; JSA, which promotes a war against crime, has just over 15,000 members or “doors” – namely individual stores. JSA gets significant recruiting help from Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co., which gives a break on premiums to any jeweler-insurer who also is a JSA member.

Only 20% of JCK panelists who are members of their state jewelry association say they are “very active” in its affairs; 49% say they are not active at all.

The naysayers speak up. Because far more jewelers do not belong than do belong to the various industry groups, it’s worth examining why jewelers don’t belong.

Lack of time certainly is a critical factor. But consider some of these other comments:

“The relevancy of these organizations must change to keep up with new business environments. If they don’t, then membership will maintain its downward momentum.” – Ken Flaks, Yakima Diamond Center, Yakima, Wash.

“They don’t seem to offer much more than a vacation write-off. Also, they aren’t always what they purport to be (AGS).” – William Nusser Jr., Hands Jewelers, Iowa City, Iowa.

“Too many seem to be a big deal with little or nothing happening that will really help me. I’ve talked to some of the groups that control our industry about 50%- and 70%-off advertising. The big chains that sell junk get by with false advertising and nothing is done.” – John J. Allison, Allison’s Custom Jewelry, Sidney, Ohio.

“They don’t help the independents with what they need to run a store so they can’t compete and are closing up shop. The big boys don’t need the associations to run a store. They only want the associations to take on national issues.” – Morton Krasner, B.F. Krasner Co. Jewelers, Flint, Mich.

“Associations have grand ideas, but it takes so many years to obtain positive results, if at all.” – Dan Donaldson, Donaldsons Jewelers Inc., Topeka, Kans.

“These groups are dinosaurs, more interested in needless social events and giving awards to each other than working hard to improve the industry’s image with the public.” – Hy Goldberg, Safian & Rudolph Jewelers, Philadelphia, Pa.

“Today there is a wealth of information outside the organizations and we have too many distractions in our personal and professional lives.” – Robert Young, Robert Young Jewelers, Belleair Bluffs, Fla.

“There is a tremendous proliferation of groups. Who has the time to attend all the meetings? Locally, theoretically we have monthly meetings of the American Gem Society guild, the GIA alumni and the state JA association. All of them are hurting. Nationally, we have not only a proliferation of shows but also the proliferation of various groups – my Miller Research Group, my computer user group from Applications Systems Corp., two meetings with RJO and so forth. I could say that I expect a shakeout but the truth is only that I wish there were fewer potential claimants for my spare time.” – Alexander Rysman, Romm & Co., Brockton, Mass.

Such a litany of sorrow and discontent certainly underlines why so many associations capture such a relatively small proportion of potential members. But, as our panel poll reveals, while many jewelers could care less about being joiners, many others relish group activities – and they’re convinced that membership brings big payoffs.

The number one reward, they say, is that they learn new things, either from formal seminars or from talking with colleagues. Sharing information with colleagues is their number two reward. Then it’s a mix of social pleasure, furthering a career by showing industry involvement and leadership and, where the opportunity arises, attending a group-run show.

The rewards don’t come just by showing up at a meeting. There has to be giving as well as receiving. “I think many jewelers are looking for a ‘magic cure,’” says Ellen Lacy of Lacy & Co. in El Paso, a very active member and officer of the American Gem Society. “No organization can provide that cure, so they quit. What they fail to realize is that the benefits are there; you simply must participate and use them. Then you have the needed results.”

Association executives say a heartfelt “amen” to those sentiments.

The view from the head office. Offsetting the criticisms and cynicism of present and potential members, association executives are extremely upbeat these days – particularly in the more active state jewelry associations and those that offer major buying opportunities.

Much of the optimism is in the Midwest and South. Jewelry associations in such states as Michigan and Ohio and Mississippi and Alabama all report thriving activity with strong and growing membership. Charles Creamer, executive director of the Michigan group, says it has grown in number in each of the last 20 years and cites one unchanging operating principle – “provide members with goods and services that they can’t secure on their own or can’t secure at a cost the association can provide.” Michigan, for example, provides a dental program, compensation insurance and bank card availability.

In Ohio it’s a similar story. There the benefits include education programs and scholarships along with deals on insurance and credit cards. The association also runs the Columbus jewelry show, which is emerging as the most vital of all regional events. “I don’t know why all jewelers wouldn’t want to join the organization,” says Jack Seibert, the vice president. The Mississippi JA thrives by being “a big family” for participating jewelers, says Jimmy Patterson, the president. He rates the organization’s strength and vitality as “excellent.”

Jewelers of America, the national organization, gets a lot of credit for good feelings at the grass-roots level. Sharon Blair, executive director for a number of Midwest state associations, says much of the membership growth in her groups is attributable to the direct support JA is giving the independent jeweler. She cites in particular a line of credit JA gives each affiliate to use at its own discretion to benefit members. Kansas, she says, chose to use some of the cash for its scholarship fund, while Iowa, another of her groups, may use some of the money for its convention. Martell Grover, executive director of the five-state Intermountain JA, says the national association’s greater “member friendliness” at the local level also has helped his groups.

It’s perhaps ironic that New York, home of the national JA, is one of the states where local jewelers are having the toughest times. Alan Leopold, executive director of the state JA and a former officer of the national organization, rates the strength of his group only as “fair” and concedes that the state JA is at a 10-year low in most of its activities. The blame for the present situation falls mostly on the beating state jewelers took in the economic recession of the early 1990s. Many have not yet fully recovered. Even so, Leopold believes that new programs introduced in the past year – including an opportunity for group buying, leasing and medical programs and a new financial package aimed to help jewelers who want to pass on their business to the next generation – will help turn the situation around.

Changes at the top. JA is not the only major association to have new leadership. John Kennedy succeeded James B. White as head of the Jewelers Security Alliance in 1992. Matt Runci took over from another veteran, Michael D. Roman, as head of JA in ’95. Robert W. Bridel became executive director of the American Gem Society earlier this year, and a search is on for a new executive to run the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. Also, a former New Jersey jeweler, Richard S. Swetz, became the new owner of the Independent Jewelers Organization in February.

The change at JA has the widest immediate impact on the retail jewelry community, thanks to the extent of its membership – 11,261 companies at latest count. Matt Runci’s activist approach to his job builds on this strong base.

Runci began his tenure by surveying jewelers to find out their needs, wants and gripes. From this emerged a strategic plan designed to help members improve their business skills and profitability. Two of the most important steps JA is taking so far are its positive role in helping its state affiliates and its major educational programs. The latter are aimed to raise the professionalism and skills of all jewelry store employees.

Even though the changes at the top all seem in the best interests of the nation’s jewelers, there’s evidence that this present or impending good has not registered with jewelers themselves. When asked to rate the general outlook for industry associations over the next three to four years, only 1% of JCK’s panelists said “excellent.” Another 8% said “very good,” 42% said “good,” 40% said “fair” and the remaining 9% said “poor.” Not a very resounding vote of confidence.

As jewelers see it, there are just too many associations. Consider these comments from two Californians, both of whom have outstanding association credentials. “I think there will be consolidation of shows and various industry groups,” says Roger Marks of Rogers Jewelers in Modesto, a former president of both the national JA and the California JA. “This eventually will lead to a few strong survivors, which will be good for the industry.” And this comment from Georgie Gleim of Gleim the Jeweler in Palo Alto, a former president of the American Gem Society: “We have too much duplication and ‘doing things the way we always have.’ Those [associations] that are having real problems may no longer be relevant in their present form.”

With only a few exceptions, state and national association officers and executives interviewed for this report agree that something has to be done about the sheer number of different groups. “Consolidation of organizations is inevitable considering the economic climate of today,” says JSA’s John Kennedy – though he hastens to add that JSA intends to stay totally independent.

JA’s Matt Runci agrees that there are too many groups. “A jeweler has his resources overtapped,” he says. “He must make choices.” One solution, says Runci, may be for various organizations to form “alliances” to eliminate waste and duplication of effort. A case in point: the combination of the Jewelry Information Center with JA.

The JA chief executive argues that since so many individuals in the industry serve on the boards of different groups, they should be well placed to spot unnecessary duplication of effort. As an aside, quite a few of the jewelers polled for this report pointed to this widespread overlapping of board membership as an example of the cronyism that turns off the rank and file.

Robert Bridel of the American Gem Society is less concerned about numbers of associations than about their purposes. “The bigger issue,” he says, “is that most associations are looking alike. The key is differentiation… The AGS mission is both well defined and timeless. We provide value for our membership.”

Apparently jewelers, both AGS members and non-members, agree that Bridel and AGS are on the right track. Asked to identify the single organization or group most likely to have continued success, JCK panelists voted AGS No. 1. William A. Mosher of Mosher’s Jewelers in Port Huron, Mich., whose firm has been an AGS member since 1938, has a comment that sums up the feeling of many of his colleagues: “AGS has great members, both retail and wholesale. It has stayed focused on what is important in our industry. It serves the independent and smaller-size jeweler best.”

The No. 2 vote goes to JA, which won many accolades. Perhaps the most succinct comes from Dale Perelman of King’s in New Castle, Pa., a former JA president. JA, he says, is most likely to be the organization enjoying the greatest future success because it has “broad membership, good education, strong services and a big pocketbook.”

HOW MUCH INVOLVEMENT?

Here’s how jewelers rate their involvement in the various associations and groups of which they are members:

Association/group Very Somewhat Not
State jewelry association * 20% 31% 49%
American Gem Society 28 45 27
Diamond Council of America 15 62 23
Independent Jewelers Organization 41 27 32
Jewelers Security Alliance 5 30 65
Jewelers Vigilance Committee 6 29 65
Jewelers’ Research Groups 83 17 0
National Bridal Service 0 67 33
Retail Jewelers Organization 25 44 31
Scull Groups 87 13 0
Women’s Jewelry Association 17 67 16
* Jewelers of America, the national organization, was not on the list for jewelers’ votes. Instead, they were asked to vote on their activity in their state association. Direct activity in the national association largely is confined to the members of the national board.
Source: JCK Retail Panel

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

Here’s how jewelers rate the various “rewards” they get from participation in industry associations. The figures show the median value of each reward on a scale where 1 is very important and 10 is not at all important.

Reward Jewelers’ rating
Learn new things 1
Share information with colleagues 3
Make social contacts 5
Further my career 5
Have a buying opportunity 5
Receive group benefits 6
Attend a group-run show 7
Gain recognition from industry peers 8
Get travel and hotel discounts 8